Friday, September 02, 2011

A Gay Man Behind The Dream: Remembering Bayard Rustin

With the passing of the 48th anniversary of the great March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s milestone speech, “I Have a Dream,” once again, a gay black civil rights organizer and strategist has been forgotten. This man was someone who greatly influenced both Dr. King and the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, and deserves to be remembered by all Americans and honored by the LGBT community as a hero.

Bayard Rustin, born in 1912, studied the nonviolence philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, and never sought the spotlight, but his impact on American social movements of the 20th century is undeniable.

A Quaker and a talented singer Rustin became involved in the gay rights movement during his later years. Sadly the dedication ceremony of Dr. King’s Memorial was rained out because of Hurricane Irene. Yet his legacy will never be dimmed or overlooked. However many are unaware of Rustin who played an incredibly influential role in the young Atlantan preacher’s life.

A gay black man from Westchester, Pennsylvania, Rustin was involved in nonviolent direct action against discrimination while Martin Luther King Jr. was still in college. And he was out when precious few gays journeyed beyond the closet. In fact, in 1953, Rustin was convicted and spent 60 days in a California jail for “sex perversion,” which was consensual sex with a man in a car. However, this experience never slowed down Rustin who went on to become an influential advisor to both civil rights and labor leaders.

During his tenure with the War Resister’s League, Rustin met Dr. King and began working directly with him. Beginning in the mid-1950s, he was advising Dr. King on Gandhian nonviolent tactics. In fact, the March on Washington was mainly organized by Rustin with the full support of labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Life Magazine featured the two of them on its cover shortly after the march. Both civil rights leaders and white segregationists disparaged Rustin for being gay. However, we might never have heard “I Have a Dream” if it wasn’t for this persistent and dedicated gay black man.

In addition, Rustin quickly recognized King’s leadership and helped build the Southern Christian Leadership Conference around him. Later he was forced to resign, despite Dr. King’s support, from the same organization he was responsible for forming due to his being out.

Other activities Rustin engaged in before King even appeared on the landscape, included travelling to California to help protect the property of Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment Camps during WWII, and co-organizing the Journey of Reconciliation, which was the first of the Freedom Rides – directly testing the Supreme Court ruling which banned racial segregation in interstate travel.

Every August 28th America pauses and remembers Dr. King’s eloquent and visionary words from the steps of the Lincoln Monument. Perhaps we can also begin remembering the gay man who was influential and prominent behind the podium, Bayard Rustin.